In this blog, written exclusively for the Festival of Archaeology by rock art expert, Joana Valdez-Tullett, we invite you to explore the fascinating connection between archaeology and creativity through a journey into prehistoric expression in rock art.  

Creativity is inherent to Humankind. It is the mechanism that led and continues to drive our capacity for invention, innovation and artistic expression. In prehistory, this is visible not only in the variety of artefacts produced from a range of different raw materials and the diverse livelihood strategies enacted, but also the decoration of tools and other objects, as well as the landscape itself, in the form of rock art. Rock art is the expression commonly used to refer to the creation of paintings or carvings in rock and on durable surfaces, which include the walls of caves and shelters, as well as outcrops and boulders in the landscape. Rock art can be figurative, when depicting recognisable images such as animals and humans, or abstract when composed by geometric motifs. Some compositions can be created with a combination of paintings and carvings. 

Achnabreck Kilmartin Rock Art

Rock carvings at Achnabreck, Scotland. Image by Joana Valdez-Tullett. 

We are probably all familiar with the amazingly beautiful Upper Palaeolithic (c. 50,000 to 12,000 years ago) paintings in the European Franco-Cantabrian region, such as Altamira (Spain) or Chauvet (France). They are best known for their depictions of animals like horses, bison, lions, bears, deer and even mammoths, typically created with a palette ranging from yellow to brown, red, orange and sometimes black colours. The date of these cave paintings ranges between c. 30,000 to c. 11,600 years ago. As new discoveries are being made, we now know that Palaeolithic Art is not exclusive to Europe, with examples being found as far away as Indonesia in the Leang Tedongnge cave. It was possibly also not exclusive to the Homo Sapiens species, as researchers now believe they have found evidence for Neanderthal art, dating to more than 50,000 years ago (Middle Palaeolithic period).  

During the Palaeolithic period, large areas of Britain were covered by layers of ice, making it challenging for Humans to survive in such inhospitable conditions. Late Upper Palaeolithic portable art, however, had been known in the country since the 1970s, including the famous horse-head engraving on bone found in 1876 at Robin Hood Cave, Creswell Crags (Derbyshire), currently in the British Museum. The Creswell Crags gorge is indeed known for its long period of human occupation, with finds dating between 60,000 and 8,500 years ago retrieved from four main caves, since the 19th century: Pin Hole, Robin Hood Cave, Mother Grundy’s Parlour and Church Hole. These include animal bones (e.g., spotted hyenas, brown bears, Arctic hare, wolf, wild horse), some of which with cut marks, teeth (e.g. sabre-toothed cat, woolly rhinoceros), and lithic artefacts ranging between the Middle and the Late Upper Palaeolithic (e.g., leaf point, scrapers, blades, bladelets, end-scrapers, piercers and a burin). As such, it is perhaps not completely surprising that in 2003 a group of archaeologists made the first discovery of Palaeolithic art in Creswell Crags, as a result of a project dedicated to searching for these forms of ancient expressions.  

Backstone Beck Stones rock art

Backstone Beck rock carvings, Ilkley Moor, Yorkshire. Image by Joana Valdez-Tullett. 

The cave art of Creswell Crags is the oldest known art in Britain, and it has been dated to a period between c. 13,000 and c. 11,000 years ago. Most of the carvings were identified in the walls of Church Hole cave, and in general they are very faded and weathered, particularly due to the nature of the smooth Magnesian Limestone on which they were produced. In addition, what has been identified as ‘witches’ marks’ and modern graffiti can be found engraved in most, if not all, the caves in Creswell Crags, and many dates and names overlay the prehistoric motifs. Around 80 prehistoric carvings were identified, including the depiction of a deer, a bison and a horse, and possibly birds or bird-headed people.  

Contrasting with the scarcity of Palaeolithic art in Britain, decoration in the Neolithic period (c. 4000 to 2500 BC) is rather well represented across the country. This period is characterized by great social and technological transformations, accompanied by the development of a wide variety of decorative techniques applied to multiple types of materials. Artefacts of chalk, stone, antler, bone and wood (e.g., pottery, carved stone balls, maceheads, etc.), funerary monuments (e.g., passage grave tombs, long barrows) and even domestic buildings (e.g., Ness of Brodgar, Scotland) were decorated during the Neolithic, playing an important role in the communities’ lifestyles.

Achnabreck Kilmartin rock art

Rock carvings at Achnabreck, Scotland. Image by Joana Valdez-Tullett. 

Many of Britain’s vast landscapes were decorated with carvings of geometric and abstract symbols. The iconography of this rock art includes the well-known cupmarks – circular hollows cut onto the rock surface – and cup-and-ring marks, the latter composed of a central cupmark surrounded by one or more concentric circles. Variations of these motifs include rosettes (a circular arrangement of cupmarks which may be surrounded by a ring), penannulars (central cupmark surrounded by one or more incomplete rings), keyhole motifs (gapped circled with extended legs, with or without central cupmark), amongst others. These motifs can occur individually on rock surfaces, but can also be part of wider and more complex compositions.  

This rock art practice belongs to a wider carving tradition which can be found in parts of England, Wales, Ireland and the Republic of Ireland, as well as other regions of Europe, such as Portugal and Spain. Given its geographic distribution it is commonly known as Atlantic Rock Art. In Britain, the main concentrations can be found in Northumberland, Durham, Cumbria, Yorkshire and Derbyshire in England, but also Argyll, Dumfries and Galloway, Perthshire and Angus in Scotland.  

The circular motifs are not the only element common to these areas in western Europe. The use of similar carving techniques, on comparable flat surfaces of boulders and outcrops in relatively accessible locations suggests a sympathetic understanding of the tenets of this tradition by the dispersed communities that created Atlantic Rock Art. Like other archaeological artefacts which we can see moving around in prehistory (e.g., alpine jadeite axes, Beaker pottery, jet necklaces), Atlantic Rock Art is another piece of the puzzle demonstrating that people have been connected in significant ways since very early periods. These contacts may have contributed to the changes occurring in people’s lives at this point in time. The archaeological record shows that from 4300 and 4000 to 3900 BC a new range of monuments (such as cursus and chambered tombs) is introduced, in addition to new practices, traditions and beliefs. There is a shift between a hunter-fisher-gatherer subsistence to an economy more reliant in livestock and cereal cultivation, accompanied by a number of technological and social novelties. These developed at different rhythms, resulting in different and possibly contrasting societies. Notwithstanding their possible differences, neighbouring groups of people found that the art of the cup-and-rings was meaningful and important enough to be replicated extensively across their landscapes, in a way that was evocative to them.  

The Haystack cup and ring marked rock.

The Haystack cup and ring marked rock, Ilkey Moor, Yorkshire. Image by Joana Valdez-Tullett. 

When looking in detail, it is possible to identify very fine variations in Atlantic Rock Art, reflecting the social and cultural diversity of the communities using the tradition. There are generally very small, sometimes almost imperceptible, differences, such as the design of a motif, which is repeated specifically in an area, or an obvious preference for the location of rock art. For example, in the north of Scotland it was common to carve on boulders, while in the southern areas rock art was mostly created on outcrops. In places such as the Scottish Highlands, the majority of carvings comprise cupmarks, while in areas such as Kilmartin (Argyll) and Dumfries and Galloway there are many examples of exuberant and complex decorations combining a wide range of motifs. While they all knew how to create it, the rock art was likely adapted to people’s own needs and beliefs, and it is possible that locally some symbols had different meanings.  

Due to the nature of rock art, typically found without any associated archaeological contexts or stratigraphies, the study and interpretation of carvings and paintings is difficult, especially when dealing with abstract and geometric iconographies. We know, from ethnographic examples, that one symbol can hold many meanings depending on when and where it is created and by whom. Although many people have been searching for the meaning of Atlantic Rock Art motifs, the fact that we have no access to its creators means that we may never know exactly what message they conveyed. There are, however, many theories, and Scottish lawyer and rock art enthusiast Ronald Morris published, in 1979, a list of 104, which he ranked according to their credibility. In this list he suggests that the circular motifs could be related to landscape maps, astronomical alignments or that they could be some kind of landmarks. Other, less convincing, suggestions mention moulds for casting metal objects, grooves made by coiled snakes and even encoded messages from outer space. Despite the ambiguity, detailed studies of rock art combining data such as the types of motifs, details on the techniques used to produce them, the landscape location and spatial relationships with other types of contemporary sites, amongst other types of information, have been providing researchers with unparalleled information, helping us to understand rock art’s important place in prehistoric societies.